‘Fatsani: A Tale of Survival’ Review: A Malawian Girl Fights for Educational and Economic Justice

The second film submitted for Oscar international feature contention by Southeast African nation Malawi, following Shemu Joyah’s “The Road to Sunrise” in 2018, “Falsani: A Tale of Survival” offers an earnest depiction of struggle against poverty and corruption. Director Gift Sukez Sukali and writer Gilbert Moyo’s debut is technically competent if more haphazard in storytelling terms, articulating its social issues in terms alternately blunt and sketchy. Still, it represents a promising effort for a local industry still at a formative stage, one that will be of inevitable interest to programmers for African cinema and human rights-themed forums.

Introducing herself in sporadic voiceover narration, heroine Fatsani Lema (Hannah Sukali) is an 11-year-old orphan being raised by her sickly grandmother (Leliya Samson), though the caregiving tends to go more in the reverse direction. Despite considerable domestic duties, Fatsani manages to go to school, where her academic aptitude is duly noted by teacher Mrs. Phiri (Joyce Chavula). But the principal (Edwin K. Chonde) is a malevolent fatcat who not only bans the girl from associating with her sole classmate friend (Charity Kavuta), but is actively plotting with a government minister to sabotage the school’s operations so the property can be sold.

At about the midpoint — which also brings an awkward flashback explaining what happened to her parents — Fatsani must begin selling bananas in the market to make ends meet. She loses Mrs. Phiri (who’s been transferred to a new school anyway) as mentor, but gains a new maternal figure in fellow merchant Nambewe (Uthandiwe T. Chidambo).

Even this scraping-by toil is imperiled, because vendors who pay fees to officials don’t want competition from unlicensed street trade. They collude with the easily-bribed police to orchestrate brutal crackdowns. In the midst of one such, at which protestors finally rally against their oppressors, the hitherto close-mouthed Fatsani improbably grabs a bullhorn to deliver a long speech decrying various societal injustices. Even more improbably, this makes waves not just locally or nationally, but around the world.

That triumph over systemic graft and theft would carry more force if not for a somewhat wooden child lead performance, the script’s carelessness about details (we’ve no idea how Fatsani kept herself and granny alive before leaving school to work, for instance), and a directorial paucity of narrative tension. Individual scenes are often poorly shaped, with transitions between them usually no more than a blackout.

Variable performances, clumsy action sequences and an overwhelming excess of various-artist music soundtracked further conspire against the film developing any consistent pacing rhythm or tone. On the plus side, the widescreen photography is nicely handled, several drone shots providing a welcome bigger picture.

Repeating obvious points while omitting needed additional intel, “Fatsani: A Tale of Survival” can feel both overlong and underdeveloped. But however limited its insights or dramatic impact, it still provides welcome illustration of some challenges facing one of the region’s most embattled nations.